Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Close of the campaign

These posts are all going to be out of order, as I have started to describe some of the last week, and then have jumped to what is going on right now as we watch results. 

However, I want to share one of the most moving and significant events of the last week. During this week we have visited several remote rural communities; there were not large numbers of people, but I think the work we did there was useful, and I will detail it at some point soon. But the activity that made the strongest impression, in some ways, took place last Sunday, September 4, exactly a week before the elections.

Originally we were going to spend the weekend visiting the Ixcan, a remote region in the northeastern part of Quiché; the region spills over departmental boundaries into Alta Verapaz. It would have taken us at least a day to get there and a day to get back (and these would be days of solid driving).

A day or two before we would have left, Fermina told me that they weren't going to the Ixcan; they had communicated with the comrades there and were just going to send some literature and let the people on the ground and let them handle it. They were going to spend Sunday at a ceremony; I asked or suggested that I accompany them and they agreed. They told me they wanted to leave at 5 a.m. and so I said I would pick them up and we would all go together.

I had no idea, really, of where they were going or what the ceremony was going to consist of. I have been to several ceremonies, but they have all been ceremonies that were organized in the context of some larger event: a ceremony to mark the inauguration of our radio station, or a ceremony to mark the anniversary of another radio station. All of these ceremonies were led by Maya priests or spiritual guides who were brought in specifically for the occasion.

However, this ceremony was just Matilde and Fermina, making offerings that were very personal, and Neil a friend of my daughter's who had come to see if he could help with my research) and I were very privileged to be part of it.

We picked them up in the morning, first Fermina, as she lives along the highway that leads from Chinique to Santa Cruz, and then Matilde, who lives inside the town proper. The sky was dark when we set out a bit before 5, and only started to streak a little orange and gray when we were at Matilde's home. Matilde had a large cardboard carton which contained the offerings, and a few plastic bags. I realized that I hadn't brought a scarf or anything to cover my head; in most ceremonies the priests and priestesses cover their heads, but since this one was very small and private, even though I am not an aq'iq' (sacerdote Maya or guía espiritual), it seemed proper that I cover my head as well. Matilde ducked back in and grabbed an extra shawl and handed it to me and we loaded up the pick-up and took off. 

Doña Matilde carrying the offerings
They told me we were going to a sacred site that was just beyond San Pedro Jocopilas, and so we drove up the highway past the town, where it starts to curve again wildly, and then after a little while they told me to turn to the right. There was a dirt road leading up towards some fields; I parked the car where there was space and we continued on foot, the women balancing the packages on their heads nearly effortlessly.

Sitio sagrado, el Quiché
It was as though we were entering a magical and nearly hidden place. We climbed up the muddy path leading up to the milpa (corn fields), as the light from the rising sun reached over the edges of the corn. 

 As we walked up the path, I could see that there was a clearing amid the fields -- a large, circular, open area, the ground covered with an even, black layer of cinders. 

There was one older man who was bent over some coals, candles and incense, making his own offerings; Matilde and Fermina greeted him politely and he returned the greeting.
At one edge, there was an altar -- some broken pieces of ceramic pottery arranged into a U-shape, about 1-1/2 feet high.  Fermina and Matilde put the packages down in front of this, and put their bags behind, to one side, and started to lay out the items in the box and bag. 

We carefully unwrapped bunches of thin wax candles from their newspaper coverings; there were thirteen different colors in all. White, off-white, yellow, orange, red, pink, purple, green, black, brown, and three different shades of blue: a navy blue, a royal blue, and a sky blue.

Doña Matilde (l) and Doña Fermina (r)
 Matilde and Fermina carefully arrayed the candles, and then we opened packages of incense, three different kinds. One kind was in the form of granulated crystals, and the other two were resinous brown disks of copal -- both larger and smaller disc-shaped pieces that came in long rolls that had to be untied and unwrapped. The women had wrapped their heads with cloths, and I wrapped my head also, as a sign of respect (Neil eventually covered his head later). 

 Neil and I both had taken some pictures when we arrived, struck by the simple beauty of the space. Matilde and Fermina explained that this was a very powerful site, and that what they were coming to do was the second part of a ceremony that they had started earlier, some days before. They had gone to a sacred site near Chichicastenango together with a priest, but since he couldn't come with them on this day, they had spoken with him and had decided to do it on their own. 

Both women are, I had been told, aq'iq'ab (plural of aq'iq'), but I don't think either of them hangs out her shingle and performs ceremonies for other people. They are priestesses in that they have studied and learned and know what needs to be done in ceremonies, but the sense I have is that they only do ceremonies for themselves and close family, and often consult with a priest who really practices his "profession" more.

After the preliminary preparations, Fermina asked that we not take pictures. Actually, she didn't make a request. She simply stated that during the actual ceremony, taking pictures would disturb the energy, so of course we put our cameras away (although it wasn't entirely clear when the preparations ended and the ceremony began).

Fermina placed some light-colored candles around the inside of the ceramic altar, and then they proceeded to make the altar that we would use on the ground in front of it. First, a bag of sugar was opened (I am using the passive voice because I do not now remember who did what) and a cross was traced on the black cinders. Then, around the cross, a circle.  After the design was drawn, it was overlaid with a layer of the larger discs of incense, first along the cross and the edge of the circle, and then filling the inside. On top of that, the smaller incense.  Afterwards, layers of candles.

 My memory is fuzzy about the exact order of what happened next. Both Fermina and Matilde offered prayers, at some times stopping to explain to me (and then I translated to Neil). They were giving thanks for the help they had received in the campaign, and dedicating themselves anew to the work they had committed to in the communities, regardless of whether or not Matilde was elected. It was both solemn and joyous. I think it was pretty early in the ceremony that Matilde explained that they were going to smoke some puros (hand-rolled cigars), "if we can stand it." She explained that smoking a cigar was important to get rid of negative energies and also if one had a lot of enemies. Smoking the cigar would help "cure" the enemies so that they would no longer oppose one. Fermina had, by this time, lit the several candles that she had placed in a semi-circle around the inside of the ceramic altar. I decided to try my luck at smoking cigars, and Neil also tried one. In ceremonies in Cuba, especially in misas espirituales, people smoke cigars to help bring down the eguns (spirits of the dead) and certain orishas (such as Elegguá) are fond of cigars and the horse of Elegguá -- that is, someone possessed by Elegguá in a ceremony -- will often light a cigar. 
We took a few candles in hand and lit them from the candles Fermina had lit on the altar, and then used the candles to light the cigars we had clenched in our mouths. The cigars were somewhat damp, whether from being inside a plastic bag or because it has been rainy and humid for much of the last couple of months, I don't know, but both Fermina and Matilde had trouble getting the first cigars they tried to light. I worked hard on mine, vigorously puffing (but not inhaling) to get the cigar lit and then to help it burn smoothly.  My first cigar went surprisingly quickly, working itself down to ash. I wasn't sure what one was supposed to do with the ash; Fermina explained a few minutes later that you want the ash to fall off; that means that you are cleansing yourself of negativity and the enemies are going away. So, I let the ashes fall where they would, and then laid the stub of the cigar along the edge of the stack of incense and candles, alongside the cigars that Fermina and Matilde had abandoned. I thought I'd try another and so rummaged for one and some more candles (I'd had to relight my cigar a few times and the candles burned quite quickly). 

The second one was harder but I managed to smoke much of it. I looked over at Neil; he smoked one cigar and I think started a second, but stopped after that.  Mati and Fermina were doing much better on their second cigars. Matilde told me that if you were feeling weak and having trouble getting the cigar to light, you might need to go the altar and ask for help there, which was what she had done. I did that too, more than once. I smoked four cigars in all. My mouth was dry and I started to feel very light-headed and a bit dizzy, and also thirsty. I finished stacking up my partly-smoked cigars on the altar and sat down cross-legged on a piece of cardboard from the box we had and waited. By now the sun was bright and strong and I was quite warm.

I continued to feel slightly wobbly for a while; I'm not sure if it was from hyperventilating as I puffed and puffed and puffed to get my cigars to burn, or something else. I've been to a lot of ceremonies, especially Afrocuban ones, and I have never really felt any physical effect. But I was definitely feeling something, although it could have had purely physical causes. I had barely slept; I had been up for several hours already with only a packet of Emergen-C dissolved in a glass of water for nourishment; I had tried my best to rapidly smoke 4 cigars. 

Eventually Matilde and Fermina decided that we had collective smoked enough cigars and then they lit the fire. They said a long series of prayers, nearly entirely in K'iche' so I could understand very little. At one point I caught that they were going through the 20 nahuales in order and saluting them; similar to the saluting of the orishas in order in a toque de santo. I explained to Neil, although I couldn't do a lot of explanation. It took a while for all twenty to be addressed. As the prayers went on, we burned some of the candles of different colors. Mostly Matilde and Fermina did that; I indicated that we would like to participate when it was appropriate. At a certain point Fermina gave us candles (I think white or off-white) and said she would tell us when we could add our candles to the fire.

As I said earlier, it's now over a week since this happened and I do not remember all the details, and even if I did it would be hard to recount them in order. There was just an excess of sensations, the sound of the traffic whirring along the highway a hundred or so yards away, the pungent smoke of the incense, sometimes so acrid that it make your eyes tear, the heat of the fire, so intense at times that I had to stand back or move to another side. We took bunches of candles when directed and put them to the fire; we cleansed ourselves, knelt and  tried to follow along with the prayers. There were other people at the site but I barely looked around to see them; I was vaguely aware of their presence. To one side, sort of behind us, a man and a young girl were making some offerings, and another older man came later, more or less as we were leaving.

Other offerings included some crystallized incense, and toward the end, they took out some small bottles of Florida water and said we should cleanse our hands with that. At the end, they smoked some additional cigars, and then cleansed us and each other with the smoke (again, something very familiar from santeria and espiritismo, using tobacco smoke to purify and cleanse). 

At one point Doña Fermina pulled out recycled water bottle, poured a small amount of the contents into the cap and handed it to me. A little bit of spirits to lift the spirits, and also refresh us from all the smoke and heat. I was tempted to treat it as one would aguardiente in santeria and spray it with my mouth around the fire but wasn't sure that the gesture would be viewed as respectful, and I didn't want to ask, so I didn't.

After the offerings had been made, Doña Matilde and Doña Fermina said that they would close and would offer a time for each of us to say how we felt and what we thought about the ceremony. I said that I was very honored to have been invited and that it was a real privilege to share this moment with them. That I was grateful that they had accepted my collaboration during the campaign and that I admired them a lot for their commitment. I also said that the energy was very strong, the place was very special, and that I had felt very charged by the ceremony. I don't remember whether they spoke before me or after. But they both said that they had felt weak when they started, that they had gone to talk to the fire and had gotten energy, that they were grateful for all the  help and support they had gotten in the campaign and that even if they didn't win, it had been an experience and they were committed to working with the community. 

They also said that the fire had been good, that it was strong, and that it seemed that the abuelos were satisfied with what they had done. So as the embers died down we packed everything up. All the wrappings were piled up in a separate heap and burned so that we would not leave trash at the site, and everything else we carried back with us (not everyone else had been so respectful: at this, as at other sacred sites I've visited, some plastic bags and scraps of paper and some empty plastic bottles and random other pieces of garbage were strewn around). As we packed up, I saw the bag of bottled water; they had told me earlier when we were taking things out of the car, that it was for the ceremony. So I hadn't touched it, although at one point I was severely parched and light-headed. I grabbed a bottle and guzzled most of it down, commenting between gulps that I had wanted some earlier but had been fearful it was reserved for some ceremonial purpose.

First stop after we left was the nearest store, just about 100 yards up the road. There, we ordered some beers and sat and laughed as we drank them. Then time for breakfast, which we ate back in San Pedro Jocopilas.

Later, I mentioned this ceremony to my friend Benjamín, the person who is in many ways responsible for my having thrown myself into this campaign, and his response was that the fact I had been invited to something very private was really a mark of trust. 

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